Some weeks ago I ran by Melrose Middle School in East Oakland to catch DJ Fresh in action. Voted third-best DJ in the United States at the International Turntablist Federation finals in 1999, the 26-year-old veteran is a nationwide presence in hip-hop and handled the 1s and 2s behind figures such as Nas and Common before going on to produce a series of album-length projects during the past two years with Bay Area luminaries such as Mistah FAB, J-Stalin, and Sac-Town kingpin Smigg Dirtee. But the gig at Melrose was a little different: an afternoon class in rap and production for a bunch of mildly rambunctious middle schoolers. (He teaches two groups there, in addition to an adult education course at Eastside Alliance in Oakland.)
"This is my good class," he said with a wry smile, and in a way his performance managing the kids is more impressive to me than his two national tours as Nas's DJ for Stillmatic and God's Son (Sony, 2001 and 2002 respectively). Laid-back, allowing the students to address him as DJ Fresh, he can still rock the don't-mess-with-me teacher mode when necessary, commanding respect and obedience. It's something you need a knack for.
Fresh was born in Baltimore and moved with his mother to San Jose at age nine. He spent his teens going back and forth between the coasts, developing his talents on piano as well as turntables. "I tell people I started DJing when I was nine," he said, "because I was on them things, fucking with it every day." Inspired by older brothers DJ LS1 and DJ Dummy, who remained back East, the teenage Fresh joined 12-Inch Assassins, a clique of battle DJs featuring his siblings and DJ Chaps.
LS1 went on to DJ for DMX and more recently G-Unit, while Dummy worked with Onyx and currently DJs for Common. Through Dummy, Fresh got to perform at his first major rap shows, spinning at a number of Common gigs. By 18, Fresh was back in the Bay Area, only to be recruited by Nas, whose tours really put him on the map.
"The nigga just called me up one morning," Fresh recalled. "I knew it was going to happen, but I'm the kind of person, I'll believe it when I see it. He was, like, 'Have you done any major shows?' I kinda lied. My brother told me, 'Before you tell him what you want, tell him to make you an offer.' So he made me an offer I couldn't refuse. His manager called me back the next day, and it's been on since then."
"After my second tour with him, I went to school," Fresh continued. "I took that money and used it for my schooling over at Expression in Emeryville. The tour shit is cool, but I didn't want my eggs in one basket. I went for sound engineering I learned a lot of shit there." Though many rap producers eschew such formal training for fear of losing their autodidactic uniqueness, Fresh is a prime example of someone whose education has only enhanced his natural talent. Check, for example, the mix on his 2006 collaboration with J-Stalin, The Real World: West Oakland (FreshInTheFlesh). The sound is spacious huge clean and clear as a bell, requiring technical virtuosity behind the boards. Combined with his knowledge of '70s and '80s R&B "What I See," for example, interpolates "Strawberry Letter 22" Fresh's beats immediately stand out.
"When I make my beats, I still got the DJ mentality," Fresh said. "Right when you hear it, it's catchy. When you doing a party, you trying to keep it cracking, keep it off the hook. I take a lot of old shit and re-create it and reflip it.